Attachment & Relational Truama

angie gunn relationships trauma

We've been compiling all of the wisdom from various trauma scholars over the last few years, with the intent of creating really concrete and easy to understand tools which explain trauma neurobiology, and strategies for finding healing long term. So here it is! We honor that this image can feel overwhelming so here's a little breakdown.

When you look at the first picture, you see a circle representing a typical cycle of activation and soothing. It's easiest to think about the concept of attachment by considering children. An infant has a need, they express distress, the need is met and they calm down. This cycle repeats 50-100 times a day, providing that same amount of opportunities for the caregiver to show up and demonstrate predictability, consistency, and safety. This directly impacts the child's ventral vagus nerve- the part of their nervous system which allows them to feel regulated, grounded, open and curious. This is the foundation for secure attachment, the feeling of safety and belonging in relationships. Two notes about attachment: it's not deterministic or causal- you can change your attachment style and every new connection impacts how you relate to safety in relationships.

Unfortunately most of us don't have secure attachment styles, as a result of early relational trauma or subsequent harm in relationships. Relational trauma is one of the most common, and most impacting, types of trauma- because it impacts our ability to feel okay with who we are on our own, and in connection with others. Do I belong? Do they like me? Am I valuable?

When there is trauma in these parts of your brain (vagus nerve, amygdala, hippocampus, HPA axis) your system changes it's baseline for well-being in order to keep you safe. If you look at the second image, you can see the blue dotted line in the middle. This is called the window of tolerance. The blue curvy line is a "normal" securely attached nervous system. Our nervous system fluctuates a little each day (because of chemical and electrical responses to threats) but generally stays within the window of tolerance. Some of us will have an acute trauma moment (the red spiky line) but then return to a normal baseline after.

More often though, because of early relational trauma and complex trauma patterns, our baseline has shifted to a much higher or lower norm. So if you're a person who typically struggles with anxiety, mania, or hyperactivation daily- your baseline is more like a +5 (see numbers on the right side). This means that your sympathetic nervous system is working hard every day to keep you safe, and you've learned to stay vigilant to survive. Often anxious attached folks fall into this pattern. If you're someone who struggles with depression, dissociation, or shutting down daily, your baseline is more like a -5.  This means that your parasympathetic nervous system (dorsal vagus nerve) is working hard to keep you safe, and you've learned to get small to survive. Often avoidant attached folks fall into this pattern. You can also read some of the traits associated with both types and begin to understand your patterns. Some folks also shift quickly between the two polarities, this is more common with disorganized attached folks.


ACTIVITY: See if you can monitor where your baseline is, and how your system fluctuates throughout the day. Using a tracking app can help with logging the numbers too. I know this can seem overwhelming. But the goal in understanding your fluctuation patterns is to learn how to regulate more effectively, and increase the amount of time you spend in a more regulated place. While we can't undo early trauma or relationship harm, we can practice engaging with our own nervous system to create predictability, consistency and safety in our bodies. Eventually moving our baseline closer to the standard norm.

BONUS, Regulation strategies:

These will change based on your patterns- off or on activation. The three biggest cues to watch for is temperature change, heart rate change, or breathing.

ON (hyperactivation):

  • Using rhythm and repetition in your body, breath or movement to help slow the activation pattern
  • Connection in a safe relationship- touch, conversation, co-regulation through eye contact and breath.
  • Heavy work- lifting, pushing, running, inversion of your body
  • Shifting breath pattern to trick your system into a shift.
  • Distraction that is active: movement, coloring, or playing a game
  • Sitting under a weighted blanket

OFF (hypoactivation or shut down):

  • Connection in a safe relationship- touch, conversation, co-regulation through eye contact and breath.
  • Eating, drinking or moving
  • Yelling, singing or vocalizing to activate your vagus nerve
  • Dancing, running or more intense movement
  • Grounding in your space- orienting in reality (name 5 things you can see, smell, taste, hear, touch)
  • Breathing more rapidly (breath of fire from yoga works well)


ReferencesThese tools are based on the work of Babette Rothschild, Peter Levine, Steve Haines, Pete Walker, Robert Scaer, and Stephen Porges, and Resmaa Menakem.

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